"I should have brought a newspaper or a book or something."
Nearly unpacked, having already survived her first class at the Savannah College of Art and Design in the old Barnard School building across the square, and feeling the itch to get back to her dolls, Ginny had eschewed the thought of fixing her own breakfast of burned toast and weak coffee this morning and ventured out onto the square to William's Café at the corner at West Taylor.
The serious and mournful-looking young man two tables over had brought his book and hadn't looked up once since Ginny sat down. There were just the two of them on the outdoor patio of the café, which was not unusual for this time of day.
Ginny was intrigued that he was reading a book on textile art, which was what she was teaching at the college on an interim assignment while she determined what she thought of Savannah as a more permanent home. He was nice-looking enough. Clean cut and his hair nicely trimmed—something Ginny had seen little of in her class the previous afternoon. As scruffy as all of her students were—at least the ones who showed up half awake—Ginny wondered how they could turn out fine art work. But she had been assured that they did. And as the class progressed and when it was over and she walked down the hallways of the old school building, with its walls plastered with examples of their work, Ginny decided that maybe this was the right decision after all—at least for the interim.
It had been an eerie coincidence. She had barely come to the conclusion that she simply couldn't go on in Richmond, living in the Fan district and teaching the art of doll making at Virginia Commonwealth even for another month, when, on successive days, she'd received an offer to teach at SCAD for a term at least and notification that she had inherited her Aunt Marie's co-op apartment on one of Savannah's old squares. Ginny took it as an even clearer signal when she discovered that the building she'd be teaching in—Savannah's famous school of art and design being housed in old buildings all over the sleepy preeminent southern city—was right on the same square where her aunt's apartment was located. Chatham Square, one of the quietest, most picturesque, and charming of the squares mapped out for the original city plan.
The bequest had been a curious one. Ginny had known her aunt only through a series of letters exchanged over the years without the knowledge of Ginny's mother, Marie's sister. There had been some sort of falling out between the two sisters. But Marie had persisted in sending letters to Ginny on the sly until Ginny broke down and realized that she looked forward to the chat and worldly advice from the woman and opened up to her in writing—in ways that she didn't open up even to her mother.
Marie had hidden her illness from Ginny over the past year—being more focused on Ginny's own activities—only hinting at her condition by repeatedly suggesting that it would be nice if Ginny came down to Savannah to visit her sooner rather than later. In hindsight, considering what happened not long before Marie died, Ginny came to believe that she had been insensitive and self-centered in her relationship with her aunt. She hadn't come—at least before Marie unexpectedly did die.
It wasn't because of where Ginny lived or what she taught that had become oppressive to her. It was because of Lenny. Lenny had shared Richmond with her. Wherever she turned, a memory slipped back in of what she and Lenny had done here or there. What Lenny had said. How he had smiled at her—that "forever" smile. That smile that now seemed so false and curdled her blood—blood that had run hot for Lenny. All too briefly, but all too painful now. Lenny had been her first love. She was told she'd get over it, but she didn't think that was possible.
Her Aunt Marie hadn't told her to just get over it; she had counseled that Ginny should get away—change her environment and her activity patterns and look for new, surer footing. And then, while to two were discussing plans for a visit by Ginny, Aunt Marie had died—and left Ginny her co-op apartment in Savannah, on Chatham Square, in what was one of the first cities in the New World to be designed for urban livability on paper before foundations were laid and paths cleared for roads.
Arriving in Savannah, Ginny had been pleasantly surprised. It was different from Richmond—sleepier, more southern, if it was possible to be more southern than Richmond. She had to admit, however, that Richmond was becoming northernized and urbanized at a fast pace—much faster a pace than she was seeing in Savannah. But in those differences, there also were similarities that made the transition easier for her. Old Savannah was of much the same cloth as the Fan district of Richmond where she had lived. And the art school. Well, creative students are a blessing no matter where they are found. And her work and her students truly were blessings for Ginny. She had no idea how she would have survived the loss of Lenny otherwise.
Whenever Ginny felt hurt or depressed, there were always her dolls. She could always begin making another doll. She could put all of her expression in her art.
What surprised her, though, were the people. Whenever she said she was moving down to Savannah, the first thing she would hear about was the graciousness and friendliness of the people of Savannah—and then they would mention the city's squares and how restful and serene they were.
But thus far Ginny hadn't seen any of the friendliness, except perhaps glimmers—no, to be fair, more than glimmers—of it at the college. She was trying to be fair. She hadn't been here long enough to make sweeping judgments. But thus far graciousness and friendliness weren't the first traits that came to mind concerning the people of Chatham Square—from the bag lady haunting the otherwise magical park in the square, taking up the best bench and humming her songs and rocking back and forth and not even looking up when greeted, to the man in one of the two hunkering Greek Revival piles glowering at each other across the square, one on the west and the other on the east, who gave nothing more than a curt, "Yes, it is," when Ginny had passed him the previous morning en route to the college and remarked on the beautiful morning.
Ginny had already fallen into gritting her teeth when coming back to her new home, a very nice two-bedroom, second-floor apartment with large, high-ceilinged rooms and large windows fronting the square on one side and a charming walled stone patio in the back that was shared by all. The apartment was one of several in a row of old townhouses lining the southern side of the square that one would take for separate single-family dwellings in passing. The co-op idea had sounded inviting when Ginny had been told of the apartment—but she already was learning the downside of that.
The first-floor apartment in her section of the townhouses was owned by a crotchety old man who Ginny had, thus far, principally experienced by the view of his bent back and a broad rear as he flounced back into his apartment from their shared foyer and slammed his door. Ginny had found several things that needed immediate attention when she had moved in—a leak in the roof tiles, plumbing that banged and balked, and a broken step on the stairs down to the street from the entry. And she had quickly learned that in a co-op arrangement, these had to be commonly addressed. But so far, Mr. Richards, on the first floor, snapped and retreated at any mention of a common solution to the problems—and the couple who owned the third floor apartment apparently weren't even in residence. There was a smaller apartment in the English basement, but Ginny saw as she was moving in that it had a foreclosure sign on the door that dated back into the previous year.
And here, as cheery and inviting as William's café had looked when she passed it on the way home from the college the previous afternoon, it certainly wasn't lifting her spirits now, despite the delicious, chicory-smelling coffee and the flakey croissants she found there. And she knew exactly why. The people here were pulling her down. There were only two of them besides Ginny at the outdoor café this morning—the young man who had his nose in the book and who was spoiling his handsome features with a perpetual frown and the waiter, who was even more glum than the book reader was. It wasn't that he was inattentive; it was that he seemed to be miles and miles away.
And at this moment, Ginny wasn't at all sure she had solved anything by moving miles and miles away herself—putting distance between herself and the memory of Lenny.
She was deep enough in thought going back to her apartment that she forgot about the broken step and almost tripped. Mr. Richards was standing inside his door when she entered the foyer—he always seemed to be there to see her come in even though he didn't want to talk to her when she did.
"I almost tripped on the stair again, Mr. Richards. We really must do something about that. And about the roof too—they say we're expecting some heavy rains next week."
"Do what you want about it, young lady. I don't have money for such as that. Your aunt, Marie, she never—"
"I'm sure she didn't, Mr. Richards. That's why—"
"Don't need any of your sass, either, young lady. Savannah girls don't—"
"Oh, all right. I'll call around for someone to start fixing them," Ginny said, exasperated and feeling the familiar dread of irritation and aloneness clutching at her. Richards said nothing—until Ginny had reached the fourth stair and couldn't resist saying over her shoulder, "I'll get the work done. But it's a co-op. I'll send you a bill for a third of the cost."
"I didn't OK any billing," he muttered. "And there's the basement apartment too. It's not my fault that unit's in foreclosure. I'm not liable for any more than a fourth of anything on this hall."
Ginny heard Richards's door slam right before she slammed hers. She felt foolish. He was just a grouchy old man. He probably felt as alone as she did. There was no evidence there was a Mrs. Richards, but the glimpses that Ginny had gotten of the living room of that unit around Mr. Richards's retreating back showed definite signs of a woman's taste and touch.
Ginny went into the second bedroom that she was using as a workroom and sat down to work on the latest doll she was making. Ginny didn't make dolls for play; she made elaborate historical period dolls as art objects. Each one cost hundreds of dollars to make and hundreds more than that to own. It was her art, and she made good money at it. She also was good enough at it that she was widely sought as an art instructor and gallery exhibitor.
She was having trouble concentrating on the doll she was working on today, though. The isolation at the café and this little set-to with Mr. Richards had put her out of sorts. No, she realized, she already had been out of sorts. Now she was downright despondent. This was how she had felt when she had left Richmond. Her first two weeks in Savannah had been more uplifting, but now she was sinking fast back into what she knew would become clinical depression if she didn't do something about it.
The letter was there on her work table. She'd read it a thousand times already. She reached out to take it up again, but then she jerked her hand back. She wouldn't do it. She wouldn't let herself wallow in her grief and misfortunate—and her shame.
She had to get out of the house—into the sunshine or the shade or a pretty garden. It didn't matter what. She just needed to try to do something she wasn't now doing to lift her spirits.
Maybe if she made a lunch she could take out into the park in the square. A picnic. She decided it was worth a try. She'd take the doll and do some fancy embroidery on the gown it was wearing—or maybe fashion something regal to pin into the doll's elaborate white powdered coiffure.
The bag lady was occupying the bench with the best mix of sunlight and shade when Ginny entered the park. This was no surprise, of course, but the woman didn't make any gesture of moving enough to one side for Ginny to sit there too. So Ginny sat on a bench facing the woman.
Fed by a cry for human contact deep inside her, Ginny took half of the sandwich she had made and reached out over the pathway that separated the two women. "I've found my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I can't eat all of this sandwich I just made. Would you like to have half?"
The woman stopped humming and rocking and looked up at the proffered sandwich and then into Ginny's eyes. If Ginny had expected to receive some spark of contact, she was disappointed, because there was nothing but the look of indifference in the woman's eyes. Ginny couldn't determine her age. She could have been anywhere between fifty and seventy. She wasn't dirty, but there was an air of unkemptness and "I don't care" about her, which Ginny thought was a shame, because the woman had a face that once must have been strikingly beautiful. There was no way of telling whether she was malnourished or obese, because she had wrapped herself in many layers of clothing. She no doubt was wearing everything she owned, Ginny thought.
The woman was surrounded by bits and pieces of what looked like cast-off and completely useless mismatched material. She held a pair of scissors, and the way she was wielding them as she cut away at the material scraps made Ginny wary.
Ginny heard the woman give a grunt, and when she looked up, she saw the woman shrug and gesture toward a piece of cardboard sitting on the bench beside her. Ginny shuffled over to the other side of the path and put the half of sandwich down on the cardboard and quickly retreated to her own bench, her eyes all the time on the flashing scissors.
Almost immediately a flock of birds descended on the pathway in front the old woman, and Ginny watched in irritation and surprise as the woman took up the sandwich and pinched away at it, tossing bits and pieces of the bread and meat to the dancing birds as she did so.
Of course Ginny felt insulted—and put in her place. She had meant it as a gesture of introduction, of friendship, not of pity and smug charity. But it had been taken wrong. She felt she had been done a wrong herself, but, equally, she wondered if it had been she who had gone beyond the bounds.
She just didn't know anymore. Ever since she had received that letter—that letter from Lenny—she had been off kilter. Her whole world had gone awry and she had begun to question everything she did—why she did it. Were her motives good or self-centered?
Ginny was still struggling with this while she busied herself with what she brought to work on and tried not to look at the old woman, who had gone back to her mad stabbing at the scraps of material as the birds lost interest for the moment and flew back up into the trees overhead.
It was while Ginny was trying to avoid a confrontation that she noticed a little girl standing at the arm of her bench. She was a little black girl of seven or eight in a loose-fitting cotton dress, white—or once white—with tiny lilacs on it, and with tightly pulled cornrow pigtails.
"Hello there. How are you?" Ginny said with a smile, trying to cover up the snub she'd just received and show that she was "the nice one."
Ginny recognized her as the daughter of a woman who lived in the basement apartment of the section of the co-op building just to the west of hers. The woman had been recommended to her as a cleaning lady by the realty company that had watched over her apartment while the inheritance papers went through and Ginny was able to take possession. The woman apparently cleaned several of the co-op apartments on the square and was a housemaid for the Armstrong Inn that also occupied a portion of the square. There was no sign of a father that Ginny had seen as yet.
"Would you like to have a cookie? I have more here than I can eat."
"No ma'am. Can't. My mamma says I can't."
Yet another rebuff. But at least this time it was for a sensible parental protection reason. Ginny could see that the little girl very much would like to have one of the cookies and that there wouldn't be any questions of the birds getting any of it if she had it.
"It's still in the package, honey. Sealed. I haven't opened it. So, why don't you just take it home with you and give it to your mother and ask her if it would be all right for you to eat it?"
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you ma'am."
Ginny saw signs of a slight curtsy as an obviously pleased little girl reached out a small, thin hand and delicately took the cookie package. Ginny was already on edge from earlier in the day and from the encounter she'd just had with the woman who was still sitting across the path now—and now showing more interest in Ginny and the little girl than she had shown to just Ginny, and Ginny felt herself trembling—on the point of both tears and a nervous giggle. She willed the little girl to turn and run off home, but the girl just stood there and looked at her, a mixed smile and quizzical look on her face.
"What is it, dear? Do you want something else?" Ginny asked. She felt the words clutch at her throat, though. She felt overwhelmed and full of regret for having come to the park.
"Is that a doll?"
"Yes, it's a doll," Ginny said, the tension beginning to drain from her now. She was returning to sure footing.
"What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing's wrong with it. I'm still making it. I make dolls. See," Ginny said, as she lifted the doll. "It's a queen doll."
"Why is the queen so sad?"
It was a simple question, but it shot through to Ginny's very being like a bolt of lightning. She looked at the face of the doll, and indeed, it did look very sad indeed. How could this have happened? This wasn't how she made her dolls. How could she have painted a sad face on the doll and not have known she was doing it?
"She's a queen who led a very sad life, dear." It was the best answer she could come up with on the spur of the moment. And that it was true quite probably wouldn't be either here or there in the view of a child. It did seem to satisfy the little girl, though.
"Do you make happy dolls too? I like happy dolls."
Ginny started to answer, but both she and the little girl looked away, toward the line of row houses on the south side of the square as they heard a woman calling. It was the little girl's mother. With a little apologetic smile, the girl turned and limped away.
It was then that Ginny noticed that the girl's legs were malformed—well, at least that one of them was. It was turned outward so that the girl's right foot was pointed at an outward angle rather than straight. She was trying to run to her mother, but she couldn't manage more than an awkward lope and constantly had to correct her movement to remain in some semblance of a straight line.
"Yes, of course I make happy dolls," Ginny murmured as she watched the little girl struggle down the park pathway, her voice choked by a tear that had appeared.
Ginny tore her gaze away from the departing figure of the little girl and looked across the pathway at the woman on the other bench—who now was looking at her sharply.
Was that a judgmental stare? A dare for Ginny to show some emotion, some misplaced sense of pity and charity?
Ginny didn't wait around to find out. She gathered up her doll and what was left of her ruined lunch and hurried across the park in the wake of the little girl and back into her apartment.
She stopped inside the closed door of her apartment, her back plastered to the strong wood separating her from the world, to catch her breath. When she could breathe again, she headed straight for her workroom and scanned the shelves to examine her dolls—the pieces of work in various stages of completion—knowing now what she would find, what she didn't want to see. Sad faces. Every face she had painted on every oblong object of porcelain or wood that represented a doll face in preparation bore a sad expression. These were all faces she's painted since receiving the letter from Lenny.